Rabbi Tarfon Sayeth: Damn, Your Kharoses is Awesome

If Passover had a flavor, for me it would taste like kharoses. Although I was a little short on certain key seder ingredients (there’s horseradish in wasabi paste, right?…) I was not going to go without kharoses the way my family  always makes it. I didn’t have the recipe and it came out a little chunkier than normal since I got a little lazy after cracking open an entire bag of whole walnuts, but after 26 years of seders I can basically make it up:

A zisn Peysakh, everyone! Wish I were with family today.

P.S. I took the occasion of Passover to learn a handy new sentence in Chinese: “摩西率领以色列人脱离在埃及的奴隶生涯.” (Moxi shuailing Yiseliren tuoli zai Aiji de nuli shengya – Moses led the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt.) I swear if someone doesn’t ask me what Passover is about and make it worthwhile that I learned that sentence, I’m just going to go up to someone on the street and tell ’em.

Friday Love List

  • Corporate guts. I’m looking at you, Google. Although I am not happy about not having free access to the US version of Google, and although I fear that the Hong Kong version of Google to which I am now redirected will soon be blocked by the Chinese government (leaving me to search with…Bing…<shudder>), I applaud Google’s move to shut the Mainland site. Although I generally favor engagement over embargo, the Chinese government has had foreign companies and governments in a stranglehold for too long, often by holding out the threat of losing the business of hundreds of millions of people as punishment for failure to adhere to its oppressive policies. This week’s lesson: sometimes the ends do not justify the means.
  • Hard-won progress. I’m looking at you, US Congress. Or rather, I’m looking at you, Most Members of the Democratic Party. Yes, I think the health care reform bill has serious flaws, but this was too large a problem, too corrupt a system to wait for the perfect bill. This is how progress begins. For any Dems out there wondering where their representatives came down in this, feel free to send these people shame-mail!
  • The generosity of strangers. After putting out a call on a Kunming expat forum for fellow seder-goers next week, I have yet to find a seder but I am now in possession of a giant box of matze, a bottle of kosher red wine and some kharoses (but SO not as good as the kind you make every year, sister G) courtesy of a friendly stranger who purchased these items in Beijing. Peysakh partydown!

Man, it’s been a long week.

Back in a Minute

I have a lot on my mind right now about my work and life in China, so much so that I haven’t been sleeping. I’m trying to figure out how to put it to you all. I’ll have it figured out in the next few days.

In the mean time: even though we were more of a Billy Joel kind of family, for some reason listening to Bob Dylan always makes me think of my parents. So for now I’m drinking a glass of cheap Chinese wine, listening to this, and missing my mom and dad.

Friday Love List

  • Mysterious cultural stereotypes. This morning I walked into work wearing jeans and a slightly lacy, periwinkle-colored top. One of my coworkers inspected my outfit and declared, “You’re looking very Scottish today!”
  • Language skill progress. Even though I still have plenty of days where I shake my head at how poor my Chinese is, I have noticeably improved in two areas: speaking to people on the phone, and engaging in smalltalk.

    It used to be that if I needed to call someone on the phone I would plan out what I was going to say, and look up any key words I didn’t know; when people called me, I would get a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach and wonder how I might be able to avoid picking up. (The reasons for this are basically that speaking on the phone robs you of the physical cues and props you might use to make yourself understood if language fails you, plus the other person usually sounds tinny and distant.) Now I just barrel through phone calls, repeating myself if necessary, asking people to speak more clearly if necessary, and only have a minor feeling of dread when I get calls at the office. Progress!

    It’s only when you operate in a foreign language that you realize how truly inane smalltalk can be, because you have to learn what it is that other people say when they don’t really want to have a conversation but are just trying to be polite. I used to not engage in this at all and, when encountering people on the street, the conversation would go something like this:

    ME: Oh, hello!


    ME: Well…goodbye! <breaks into a run>

    It was only this afternoon that I noticed I had gotten better at this when I ran into a professional acquaintance on my way home. After some minor hesitation I was able to ask her about her weekend plans, make some banter about being tired (Chinese people are like New Yorkers – they LOVE to talk about how stressed and tired they are), and exit the scene with only a few key moments of awkwardness. Progress!

  • Chinese desserts. If you have a very Western flavor palette, one of the tricky things about eating in China can be dessert. The Western appetite for dessert is generally dependent on an intimate relationship with dairy products (if you have ever tried to make vegan brownies on the fly, you know what I am talking about) and dairy comprises a very small part of, and very recent addition to, most Chinese people’s diets. As a result, more traditional Chinese desserts are simply fresh fruit (sometimes mysterious sour fruits that you don’t really feel like eating), or dried and candied fruits, or things that rely heavily on glutinous rice and soy milk.

    More recent additions to the Chinese dessert world are imitations of Westerns desserts gone VERY wrong, such as elaborately designed and delicious-looking cakes that deflate into a pile of crumbs and drippy filling when you poke them with a fork, or Mexican-bakery-style cookies covered in sprinkles that would actually be better used as a weapon in a street fight.

    But I have actually come to really like Chinese desserts because a) I like glutinous rice and soy milk, and increasingly enjoy random candied fruits, and b) I get so much pleasure out of looking at frothy cakes sculpted into dragons and Hello Kitties that it’s sort of OK with me if you don’t really get to eat them. PLUS! Yesterday I discovered this dessert:

    Looks like soft serve over vanilla pudding or something, right? But get closer…

    It’s totally made of ice! But it is soft and refreshing, like running outside after a fresh snowfall and planting your face in the ground. It has the amusing effect of making you feel totally full immediately after eating it, and then hungry again 20 minutes later when you realize that you basically consumed a giant pile of water with a bit of sugar on top. The stuff underneath is sort of reminiscent of vanilla pudding – except it’s overly reliant on glutinous rice, as far as I can tell…ah well. It can be purchased at the hilariously named shop pictured below, which I hear is actually Taiwanese (but I subscribe to the political philosophy of “One Country, Many Desserts”, so it’s OK).

    The above version is “caramel” flavor; it comes in variety of others including green tea and “chocolate”, surrounded by lotus seeds, red or green beans, and chunks of corn. I’m working on it.

Happy weekend, Readers!

Happy International Women’s Day!

I know you all have this day circled on your calendars every year, but I wanted to remind you all, just in case…

As far as I’m concerned, International Women’s Day should not be an occasion for giving women flowers and chocolates, or offering to do the household chores one day out of the year, or – as happened to me today – being offered half a day off work along with other female employees in China.

What it should be about is remembering that, even if you live in a society or class of basic gender equality and freedom, there are women across the world who do not: women who live in poverty because their gender means that they are not free to work, women who are made to bear too many children because they are forbidden from controlling their fertility, women who live under oppressive fundamentalisms, women who labor every day on land that their gender ensures they may never own.

Today should be a day for education and activism, a today for remembering that the systemic mistreatment of women not only harms women themselves, but reinforces paradigms of what constitutes acceptable, gendered behavior that harm everyone.

Here are a few examples of simple things you can do to honor International Women’s Day:

  • Remember that proposed legislation that would harm women does not have to be enacted. Send a message to your congressperson urging them to impose no new restrictions on abortion in the US.
  • Create a little feminist guerrilla art – just to remind everyone that you’re paying attention!
  • Watch the film The Stoning of Soraya M; learn more about how religious fundamentalisms disproportionately harm women here.
  • Attend an event celebrating International Women’s Day near you.
  • Donate some money to an organization working to end gender injustice. I’m sure your Googling skills and judgment are up to the task of finding something appropriate for your interests!
  • Be kinder to your female body today. Stop criticizing and punishing it for being too old/fat/dark/wrinkled/freckled/saggy/ethnic. Who knows – you just might like it.

How will you be celebrating this day, Dear Reader?

Image courtesy of gaelx

Hello, new readers?

One of two things have happened:

a) My parents spent yesterday sitting at their computers and clicking refresh over and over again to visit my blog, or

b) The fact that I put my blog address on my Facebook profile yesterday had some kind of impact. I set it so that only my Facebook friends can see it, but still, voila:

Page views for BirdAbroad

So! Either:

a) Welcome, new readers! Please sidle over to the right hand column or third tab at the top of the page (“Who are YOU, Dear Reader?”) and leave me a comment! Or,

b) What’s up, Mom and Dad? I love you too.

Carry on!

Friday Love List

  • Spring. I will grant you that it never gets very cold in Kunming, but Spring is finally here and I haven’t worn a jacket to work in a week. Aaaaah!
    This image does also show you the other side of living at a high altitude; how am I supposed to dress for a 40-degree difference between night and day…?
  • The casualness of Chinese dress. The first time you get invited to a wedding in China you will probably make a fool of yourself by wearing, say, a tie. Then you will get to the banquet hall and notice that all the rest of the guests are wearing jeans and sweaters and basically look like they just rolled out of bed.

    Chinese people around here almost NEVER get dressed up and, for foreigners like me, this is a little confusing at first. But we’re going to a business meeting with a top government official – don’t you want to comb your hair?…But you’re interviewing for a Director-level position at our organization – don’t you think it would have been wise to put on a sport coat?…But you’re OUTSIDE YOUR APARTMENT – don’t you think you should have changed out of your pink pajama set and giant fluffy slippers before going to the bank? (True story.)

    But at this point, I like it; it’s sort of like living in a giant dormitory. Everyone is relaxed about their clothing all the time. I never worry that I’m inappropriately dressed for a social activity, or a restaurant, or a business meeting. And should I ever feel the need to get a bowl of spicy noodles in the middle of having my hair done, as apparently the woman sitting next to me in a restaurant yesterday did, I won’t worry about people staring at me even if I’ve got rollers on the bottom half of my head, little sheets of folded tinfoil pleating the top half of my head, and a shiny salon gown still wrapped around my neck. Because hey, you’ve gotta eat. And that salon gown handily doubles as a bib when you spill chili oil down your front.

  • My white hairs. I think I spotted my first white hair when I was a teenager – although it soon fell out and I never paid much attention to it – but this is the first year of my life that I have a couple of white hairs that are always there. When I first noticed this I made a decision not to be self-conscious about it, and in fact have noticed that all of my twenty-something friends have a strand or two of white. Coincidentally, I usually part my hair in a way that doesn’t show my white hairs. But even when they don’t show, I periodically go looking for them; I seek out the single strands and hold them up to the light, inspecting their lack of color and their slight coarseness. There is something about them that I find inexplicably comforting. Plus, they remind me to get a move on: I won’t be young forever.

Devilishly speaking of which: Happy 30th Birthday, N! Wish I could be at the festivities with you all tonight.

P.S. I put my first post on this blog about a year ago, months before we moved to China. Read my first post from snowy Brooklyn here.